A Smoky Mountains Birthday: After Three-Quarters of a Century, the Healing Touch of Undisturbed Nature Has Restored This Mountain Range's Power to Inspire

By Miller, George | The Saturday Evening Post, July-August 2009 | Go to article overview

A Smoky Mountains Birthday: After Three-Quarters of a Century, the Healing Touch of Undisturbed Nature Has Restored This Mountain Range's Power to Inspire


Miller, George, The Saturday Evening Post


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Light the candles, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is 75 years old this summer. Standing at Newfound Gap with the hazy ridges of the Appalachians stretching to the horizon, I try to visualize what the scene looked like when President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered the dedication at this spot. By the time the park was established in 1934, 80 percent of the hills and valleys had been clear cut by timber companies. Not a promising start for what has become the keystone national park east of the Mississippi River.

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Yet today you would never guess the mountain slopes had been stripped, the streams silted, and the wildlife decimated. From The Rockefeller Memorial, where FDR stood with one foot in Tennessee and the other in North Carolina, the view is breathtaking. The densely forested hills, verdant valleys, and wildflower-lined roadways show little sign of past abuse.

At the Sugarland Visitor Center at the Gatlinburg, Tennessee, entrance, Ranger Arthur McDade explains the beginnings of the park. "This was the first citizen-driven park in the nation. With the help of $5 million in matching funds from the Rockefeller Foundation, Tennessee and North Carolina raised enough money to purchase the acreage required to establish the park. This park is a testament to citizen efforts to donate and preserve. And with 50 to 80 inches of rain annually and a long growing season, the park is a testament to nature's ability to recover."

In the early 1920s the people of Tennessee and North Carolina realized that a park in the Appalachian Mountains could rival the great western parks with both natural beauty and the economic benefits from tourism. The movement developed with citizen advocates and automobile clubs in Knoxville and Asheville leading the way. Finally in 1926, Congress agreed to establish an Appalachian park if the states could acquire 150,000 acres to donate to the federal government.

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Unlike Western parks where all the land was owned by the government, in the Smoky Mountains, timber companies and small farmers owned the land. Over the next four years, the states acquired 6,000 plots of land, some from willing sellers and some by eminent domain. In 1934, Congress authorized the park with 400,000 acres.

"First, the Cherokee gave up their land when the government forced them out," Ranger McDade says. "Then the American-European farmers gave up the land. Now we have a great chunk of the southern Appalachian Mountains preserved for posterity."

By the time the park became a reality, however, the country was in the midst of the Great Depression and funding for development seemed impossible. But the Civilian Conservation Corps came to the rescue by sending 1,000 young men to build the roads, buildings, and trails that are still the backbone of the park infrastructure.

Though decimated by logging, the mountain ecosystem recovered with the spread of the plants and animals that survived in the hollers and hills too steep to cut. Now a designated UNESCO International Biosphere Reserve, the park boasts more species of plants than all of Europe. An ongoing biological inventory has documented 1,500 species of flowering plants and 130 species of trees. The study has discovered 900 species previously unknown and estimates the park may harbor as many as 100,000 life forms.

Sampling the magic and majesty of the mountains is as easy as getting out of your car and walking down one of the forest trails. Along the road, "Quiet Walkways" lead far enough into the woods to escape road noise. …

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